TRAINING TO BE A WRITER OF CHRISTIAN FICTION
I want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ wherever He takes me to and in whatever direction He leads me to. Right now I feel in my spirit that the Lord wants me to minister His Word to people through writing Christian Fiction. I am learning a lot, while preparing to fulfill this calling. Some of the ideas that I learned may be of some help for others who, like me, would like to write Christian fiction to minister the Word of God to people around the world.
Recently I've been reading a book Witing Fiction by Janet Burroway. This book has a sub-title, A Guide to Narrative Craft, and is published by Longman Publishers, New York, 6th Edition, 2003.
GETTING PAST THE FEAR OF PUTTING PEN TO PAPER
Appropriately titled, "Whatever Works," the first chapter in Janet Burroway's book, concentrates on getting would be writers to start writing. Imparting the desire to write is hardly needed, but getting past the fear of putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard in this age) is a constant struggle even for the masters. Burroway presents some techniques for getting the thoughts flowing, and encourages the reader to not criticize what he writes at first. Heavy emphasis is put on the ability to clean up after the mess of the first draft. "Just get it down," says Burroway.
THE IMPORTANCE OF JOURNALING
One of the first methods that Janet Burroway offers as a way to get the thoughts flowing is journaling. She advises keeping a journal daily; even if only one sentence is written in a day, that is better than writing nothing at all. Staying in the habit of keeping a journal also helps a would-be writer to the see their world in story form, or in a way that would make for a good story. Sometimes, concepts can be developed throughout the day in preparation for writing it down in a journal. This is all good practice. One of my own former English teachers supported this concept in her own way by suggesting that I carry a recorder around with me so that I could easily record one liners or thoughts and refer back to them later. Another basic thing that a journal does is keep a writer writing.
LUMINOUS IDEAS AND FREEWRITING
Sometimes, it is a daring to attempt to put into words a concept that a writer has in his mind. An idea can seem "so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write about that idea is to commit it to rubble." Then, when a writer does dare to articulate his thought, he freezes up looking for that just right word or phrase. In remedy to this paradox Burroway suggests freewriting. Freewriting is the release of ideas onto paper without any sort of critique, whether literary or grammatical. Without paying any attention to punctuation or spelling, the writer simply writes whatever comes to his mind however it comes to mind for the duration of about two to three minutes. After the freewrite, the writer can then return to what he has written and look for what connections or concepts he has inadvertently constructed. Although freewriting does not generally produce a working first draft, it does lay a foundation upon which to construct a first draft.
CLUSTERING: DRAWING LINES TO CONNECT
There are times when a writer has a concept in his mind, but he struggles to develop it on paper. Using the freewriting method could adequately explore the concept, or it could wander away from it entirely. Consequently, Burroway presents another tool called clustering. In clustering, the writer puts the main concept or word in the center of the page and circles it. Then he freely jots down whatever words or thoughts spring to mind around it, and he circles those. Finally, the writer draws lines between words that seem to connect. In the end, the page looks much like a spider web with large dewdrops on it. This method helps the writer see his thoughts and how they connect to the central concept. Within this network it is possible for a writer to better understand his own thoughts, or to find the break through that he has been looking for. Try this and I know you will enjoy doing it.
EDITING AND CRITIQUING
Ultimately, the goal is for the writer to get started and to persist. All three of these methods I have been taught before in my English courses; however, Burroway stresses heavily the concept that the first draft is meant to be terrible. And that is okay, just as long as the writer gets on paper what is in his head. Once it is all on paper, then the writer can go back and edit and critique the work to perfection. No one has to see the first draft, and it can be restructured as much as needed. Maybe the opening paragraph will be found somewhere on page three, or the conclusion will be found on page two. And just maybe, that one priceless gem will found somewhere in the collage of sentences and phrases. The point is that writing is not a one shot wonder. It takes time, and it is a process.
READING ABOUT THE STRUGGLES OF OTHERS
One particular aspect of this chapter that I appreciated was Burroway's use of quotes and references from other proven authors. It was encouraging to read about their struggles, how similar they are to my own, and how they overcame them.
Ultimately, what every writer has to overcome in order to begin and persist with writing is his own fear. His fear of messing up, destroying the image in his head, or the fear of failing. The methods offered in this chapter are ways to get past that fear and put the thoughts on paper. Once there, they are subject to the writer's will. Realizing that fear is all that I am afraid of gives me courage.
THE TOWER AND THE NET
"A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time ... Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything." Kurt Vonnegut captures the critical point that a story must keep the reader asking, "What then?" If the reader stops asking this question, then they will stop reading. So what keeps a reader reading? That is the question that Janet Burroway answers in this second chapter of her book, Writing Fiction.
Here are some of the most important suggestions from Burroway.
A STORY IS LIKE A FACE!
A story is like a face, says Burroway. Each one is so unique as to be recognizable years later, and yet every face shares the same components that work to define it as a face. It is the structure of a face that differentiates it from a hand or leg or anything else. So it is with a story. Each one is distinctly recognizable, yet every story is structured in such a way as to be recognized as a story. As well, a face without a nose might still be pleasant, but it will always be a face without a nose. It cannot be just a pleasant face. It is the same thing for a story. It may be appreciated despite its lack, but it will always be acknowledged for its lack. It cannot be just a pleasant story.
BASIC STRUCTURE AND BASIC ELEMENTS: CONFLICT, CRISIS, AND RESOLUTION
This basic, necessary structure consists of three elements: conflict, crisis, and resolution. The thing about fiction is that only trouble is interesting. Peace may be fun to live, but it is conflict that is interesting to read. It is this conflict that creates a plot, giving dimension to the story. There is an equation that describes this called 3-D: Drama equals desire plus danger. Passive characters weave passive stories, so the main character needs to want or desire something with a passion. What he desires is not as important as the intensity of his desire. There also needs to be a considerable danger hindering the character from achieving his desire. Sometimes it is a mistake to make the danger grandiose, for the greatest dangers are often the familiar things in life. Following the recognizable structure of a story, conflict rises to crisis and ends in resolution. Contrary to life, the story ends. The order of conflict, crisis, and resolution implies that the subject has been brought to a close.
Crisis is the "arch of the story." It is the point after which nothing will be the same again. Janet Burroway explains, "Plotting is a matter of finding the decision points that lead to this final choice and choosing the best scenes through which to dramatize them." When a plot is developed through conflict, the protagonist and antagonist engage in a series of skirmishes, which culminate in a final show down. This last battle is the crisis action and makes the outcome inevitable.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when developing a plot through conflict. Both the protagonist and the antagonist must have sufficient power to keep the reader in doubt of the final outcome. To do this, it is necessary to identify a source of power for each character. Interestingly, power takes on many forms, including weakness. The other thing to remember is that success does not always equal a happy ending. Author, John L'Heureux, suggests that the writer ask himself, "What does my character win by losing his struggle, or lose by winning?"
Not every plot is best developed through conflict. Some authors believe that conflict and crisis can be too limiting to a story by focusing on only one aspect of existence. Conflict does not include or even comprehend other aspects of existence. Burroway presents an alternate method of plot structure referred to as Connection and Disconnection. The concept is that connection and disconnection between characters drives the emotional effect of a story. These interactions can be obvious or subtle, but it is the making and breaking of emotional bonds between characters that gives the story depth.
Janet Burroway's conclusion is that stories are about both conflict and connection. She depicts the conflict structure as a Tower, representing the need for a character to win out over others. Connection and disconnection is represented by a Net because of a character's need to belong to others. Both of these structures are adeptly unified in Burroway's story form as an upside-down check mark. The story begins with a Conflict that initiates the plot. It rises through Complications full of skirmishes and connections, and it culminates in a Crisis. After the crisis is the Falling Action, or the results of the final conflict or engagement. The Resolution completes the check mark by "unknotting" the situation and bringing things to a close.
In the midst of this structure must fit a critical point known as Reversal, where the protagonist is changed significantly. Reversal can come through either Recognition, the correction of a mistake in identity, or through Epiphany, a sudden realization. It is vital that the moment of recognition be manifested in an action; otherwise, the reader cannot share in the emotion of the moment with the character. One powerful form of Reversal actually occurs in the mind of the reader. It is the realization that there will be no resolution to the story.
Burroway concludes her chapter by explaining the difference between story and plot. A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order, while a plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. Understanding for a reader comes from putting the facts together along with the links, the reasons, between them. A short story attempts to communicate this it what Edgar Allen Poe termed "the single effect." That is, a single emotional impact that imparts a flash of understanding. Proportionately, a novel is an expanded story form that requires a conflict, a crisis, and a resolution. Both story forms need a structure containing all of the elements discussed in this chapter to be recognized as a story.
Read Janet Burroway's book, Writing Fiction, several times and you will plan your fiction writing with better understanding of the narrative craft!